Herald-Leader Editorial

Same old rerun on child deaths: Cabinet should give review panel the records it needs

November 29, 2012 

If the topic weren't so serious it would almost be funny.

A panel established by Gov. Steve Beshear to review cases in which children die or come close to dying while under the supervision of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services is struggling to get the files on those cases from the cabinet.

In its first meeting Tuesday, the Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel was met with the same wall of silence that news organizations have met even after courts ordered the cabinet to open its files.

Even though the panel was created in July to review these cases, when it convened this week, the cabinet had not gathered the case files for the group to review. Additionally, the cabinet said it will use its own discretion in redacting information in the files before releasing them to the panel.

Essentially the cabinet is saying "trust us" to give you the information you need. But, the point is this, if the cabinet could be trusted there wouldn't be a panel and there wouldn't be a long history of litigation over these documents.

Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, a member of the panel, expressed her frustration at Tuesday's meeting. "If we can't get full reports or documents, you don't know the whole story."

The cabinet has legitimate concerns about opening to the public the identities of siblings and other family members who might be endangered as well as informants who report abuse and neglect. However, decisions on what will be redacted cannot be left with the cabinet alone.

Although this particular cabinet has been painfully, expensively (in terms of both money and human life) mulish about opening its actions to review, it's not unique. Things go wrong in any organization when something's awry on the inside and rarely, if ever, do they get sorted out from the inside. It is human and organizational nature to circle the wagons, accept the excuses, prevent nosy outsiders who really don't understand from getting involved.

That's just why they must get involved.

Dr. Melissa Currie, chief medical director of the University of Louisville Pediatrics Forensic Medicine unit, made this point when Beshear created the panel, which includes law enforcement, prosecutors and medical experts as well as legislators and others. "The lessons we learn by reviewing child deaths have come at an enormous price — the life of a child," she said. The panel "will ensure that no child's death in the Commonwealth of Kentucky will go unexamined by objective and knowledgeable eyes."

She's right, of course, but if those eyes are denied access to all the pertinent records, Kentucky children will also be denied the protection they need and that Beshear promised.

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